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Cristina Pennarola » 1.The units of communication

The units of communication

Lesson plan

  • The scope of language
  • Implicit and explicit meanings
  • Linguistic choices
  • Denotation vs. connotation
  • Lexical connotations
  • Approaches to text analysis
  • Analytical skills and language performance
  • What is a text?
  • Text conventions
  • What is discourse?

The scope of language

When we are learning a language, we tend to focus on its building blocks, in particular:

  • Phonology: sounds, intonational patterns, accents
  • Lexicon: words and their meanings, word combinations, idioms
  • Grammar: the rules by which words are combined into sentences

We also focus on:
Content meaning: the literal information conveyed by the message (for example, at what time we are going to meet; when and where we can read our school results, etc).

By contrast, we may tend to overlook the deeper meanings attached to language, in particular:

  • Emotional meanings: the language users’ feelings
  • Ideological meanings: the language users’ stance on sociocultural/ political/ religious matters

It is important then, especially when we already have a good grasp of the language, to focus on the higher-order meanings. This will help us develop awareness of language in use, and widen our vocabulary.

Implicit and explicit meanings

ACTIVITY: Read the excerpt below and try to identify the higher-order meanings.

And again I say: I do not disrespect the views of those in opposition to mine. This is a tough choice. But it is also a stark one: to stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm to the course we have set. I believe we must hold firm.

Tony Blair, House of Commons, 18/03/2003

Content meaning: Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying to persuade the Members of Parliament that the UK must send its troops to Iraq.
Emotional meaning: the tone of the message is very emphatic. Notice the sequence of short sentences, the use of repetitions and emotional words (tough, stark, firm, must, believe).
Ideological meaning: there is a clear militarist stance: in fact the sending in of British troops is equated to a firm course of action (we must hold firm).

Linguistic choices

ACTIVITY: Let us now focus on the sentence in bold:

And again I say: I do not disrespect the views of those in opposition to mine. This is a tough choice. But it is also a stark one: to stand British troops down and turn back; or to hold firm to the course we have set. I believe we must hold firm.

The double negative (do not – disrespect) stands out in the sequence of affirmative sentences: I say/ This is a tough choice/ it is also a stark one/ I believe /we must hold firm. There is a simpler and shorter way of conveying “tolerance”:

I respect the views opposite to mine.

However, this hypothetical sentence lacks the emphasis and formality of the actual sentence. Moreover, the very verb disrespect seems to suggests that ideas in opposition to mine may be worthless:

I do not disrespect the views of those in opposition to mine.

The two options – as they are skilfully presented by Mr. Blair – are not equally right: one involves a turning back; the other means holding firm. The linguistic choices made in this excerpt are not neutral, and shape our very perceptions of complex events.

Denotation vs. connotation

Linguistic choices are never neutral, they convey profound meanings which go beyond the surface or literal level.

Example: Compare these two ways of expressing disagreement:

  • You’re completely wrong
  • I’m afraid I don’t agree with you

The first one is very confrontational, while the second is more polite. The choice of which one is better will depend on the relationship between the speakers and the degree of formality of the communicative exchange.

In our everyday communicative exchanges both written and spoken, we usually distinguish two different levels of signification:

  • Denotation: the literal informative message
  • Connotation: the added emotional message

I must do this: I feel this is my duty.
I have to do this: I feel this is necessary.
Words with similar meanings carry different connotations.

Lexical connotations

Especially in political language word choice plays a key role in orientating the public’s response and eliciting consensus.

ACTIVITY: Compare the word pairs below and identify their connotations:

  • Terrorist / freedom fighter
  • mission / operation
  • leader / tyrant
  • stubborn / uncompromising
  • international community /western countries & UN
  • The PM explained/ claimed that the measure was necessary

Lexical connotations

Key to the activity:

  • Terrorist: negative connotation / freedom fighter: positive connotation
  • mission: positive connotation / operation: neutral connotation
  • leader: positive connotation / tyrant: negative connotation
  • stubborn: negative connotation / uncompromising: positive connotation
  • international community: positive connotation /western countries & UN: neutral connotation
  • The PM explained that the measure was necessary: positive connotation
  • The PM claimed that the measure was necessary: negative connotation (a claim is a statement which does not necessarily say the truth)

Approaches to text analysis

The analysis of English texts – whatever their content and function – is very useful for language learners because it

  • Provides insights into real-life language us
  • Sensitizes students to the varieties of English
  • Stimulates learners to replicate common structures

A text can be examined either:
Bottom up: from lower level items to the text as a complete unit – or
Top down: looking at a text as a whole

Depending on our familiarity with a language, we may tend to privilege one approach over the other:

  • If we are still struggling with the fundamentals of a language, we tend to consider the basic text units, for example, the pronunciation and meanings of single words
  • If we are more familiar with widely used lexico-grammatical structures, we tend to consider the text as a whole, by looking, for example, at register and style

Analytical skills & language performance

When I hear I forget
When I see I remember
when I do I understand

Analysing real life samples of English sensitises language learners to a wide range of varieties and improves their performance.

The language learning process.

The language learning process.

What is a text?

A text is:
a stretch of language

  • either an extract (fragment)
  • or a self-contained piece (for example, a poem, a story, an advert, a letter etc)

A text adheres to the conventions and rules used in particular text-types.

ACTIVITY: Can you identify the typical features of

  • Poems?
  • Advertisements?
  • Letters?

Text conventions


  • Lines
  • Metrical pattern
  • Rhyme
  • Figures of speech


  • Visual
  • Slogan
  • Frequency of adjectives (absolutely fantastic, unique, extraordinary)
  • Emotional language (you’ll LOVE this experience)
  • Orders (go and get it!)

Text conventions


  • Date
  • Opening address (Dear Mr Jones/Mrs. Jones/ sir/ madam/…)
  • Closure (kind regards; best wishes, yours, etc.)
  • Dialogic exchange (I’ve had a wonderful time…what about you?)

What is discourse?

Discourse is

  • The language used in particular types of speech and writing
  • The complex of linguistic and social practices

Examples of discourses
Political discourse: speeches, parliamentary debates, manifestos, etc.
Legal discourse: laws, contracts, constitutions, treaties, etc.
News discourse: news articles, reports, features, photographs, etc.
Advertising discourse: print ads, commercials, banners, classifieds, hoardings, etc.
Literary discourse: poems, short stories, novels, criticism, etc.

I materiali di supporto della lezione


R. Carter, S. Cornbleet, 2001, The Language of Speech and Writing, London, Routledge.

Tony Blair, 2003, Speech delivered at the House of Commons, March 18th, The Guardian.

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